Where is the tomb?
It is located in Salisbury Cathedral, under the arcade on the north side of the nave and just west of the crossing.
Was it always in this location?
No. The tomb was originally placed in the Beauchamp chantry chapel (constructed in the 15th century for Bishop Richard Beauchamp). Between 1789 and 1792 the cathedral was closed and James Wyatt employed to demolish the remains of the bell tower, level the churchyard, demolish two porches, and remove the medieval chantry chapels from the east end. Inside, medieval stained glass was removed; the medieval wall paintings and vaulting decoration either removed or whitewashed over; the east end cleared and levelled; and the medieval memorials were relocated from the Lady, Beauchamp and Hungerford chapels – most of them were neatly lined up under the nave arcades.
What is the tomb like?
The Cheyney memorial comprises a tomb chest with alabaster effigy. When the Beauchamp chapel was demolished, the original tomb was badly decayed – the present chest was created by using material from the chapel. The panels on the sides have a geometric cusped pattern around blank shields; those on the north side are badly worn and were probably older.
Lord Cheyney is depicted in armour, chainmail, and robes of the Order of the Garter. His flowing, shoulder-length hair is uncovered and his head rests on a pillows with flanking angels. His hands are clasped in prayer and, around his neck is a Lancastrian collar of ‘esses’ with a portcullis pendant. The appearance of peaceful repose in death is a contrast with the accounts of his martial exploits (more on that later). The effigy has some damage: the sword blade and handle have been lost, the face is worn, and the heads have been lost from one of the angels and the heraldic beast at his feet. Over the years, the effigy has been covered with graffiti.
Cheyney’s skeleton was discovered when the Beauchamp Chapel was demolished; it was sealed into a box and placed within the new tomb.
Who was John Cheyney?
Born in Kent c. 1442, Cheyney’s father (also John) was a landowner, wool merchant, and Lancastrian supporter. Despite this, the younger John Cheyney accepted Edward IV’s accession 1461 and remained a Yorkist until Edward’s death. Cheyney’s father died in 1467 and, as the second surviving son, he mainly inherited his mother’s lands in Berkshire. When Edward IV invaded France in 1475, John Cheyney went with him as Master of the Horse. The invasion was short-lived and Edward and Louis XI of France signed the Treaty of Picquigny on 29 August. To guarantee that the English army would return home, John, Lord Howard, and Cheyney were left as hostages. They were sent to Paris and entertained in the royal household until their release.
Cheyney was present for Edward IV’s funeral but did not accept Richard III’s accession. He was involved in the duke of Buckingham’s rebellions of 1483 but, unlike the duke, he was able to escape and joined Henry Tudor in exile. At the Battle of Bosworth, Cheyney was one of Henry Tudor’s bodyguards, fighting alongside his future King. After Richard III killed Henry Tudor’s standard bearer, Sir William Brandon, it is said that Cheyney rode forward as if to seize the standard and was unhorsed by Richard. At Henry VII’s coronation, Cheyney led the royal courser in its heraldic trappings in the formal procession; he also distinguished himself at the Battle of Stoke in 1487. Rewards followed over the next few years: Sir John was created Lord Cheyney, made a Knight of the Order of the Garter, and became a privy councillor. He had married Margaret Chidiocke, widow of William Lord Stourton c. 1479 but they did not have any children; his titles became extinct on his death in 1499.
So how tall was he?
This might seem an oddly specific question but one of the most commonly stated facts about John Cheyney is that he was unusually tall. He is even said to have been given the nickname “the vigorous knight” because of his stature and strength. Some secondary sources specifically state that he was 6ft 8in.
When I first started writing this post, I thought that this would be something that I could quickly fact check and move on but it soon became more complex. It was to easy to establish that, when his skeleton was discovered in the late 18th-century, it was not measured. However, in his An historical account of the Episcopal see, and cathedral church, of Sarum, or Salisbury, William Dodsworth (who had care of the skeleton until its reburial) stated that ‘the thigh bone measured above twenty-one inches, or near four inches longer than the natural size.’ His definition of “natural size” presumably being the average in the late-18th/early-19th century – 21inches would also be above average today. It is from that measurement that the height of 6ft 8in has been calculated. However, quite apart from questions over the accuracy of Dodsworth’s measurements, it turns out that calculating height from femur length is not that simple because the relationship between the two varies according to population.
Although there have been research projects that use femur length in the medieval period, I haven’t been able to track down an equation to calculate height specifically for the male population of medieval England (or even Europe). Instead, I decided to use the modern ratio of “femur length = 26.75% of height”, a selection of general equations for calculating height from femur length, and a couple of equations generated by forensic anthropologists studying specific populations. After an hour or so of plugging in numbers, and allowing for margins of error I came up with potential heights of 6ft 2in to 6ft 6in. A height of 6ft 8in is not impossible, especially if his femur was closer to 22in than 21in. However, it does seem a bit of an outlier, and we also are having to trust that Dodsworth did not exaggerate his measurement, bearing in mind that he did not have modern measuring technology.
All of which is a long winded way of saying that Sir John Cheney does indeed seem to have been well above average height for the time, and that he was above 6ft (most likely by several inches). However, we can’t definitively say that he was 6ft 8in tall.
Did he use a bull’s head as a helmet?
Another slightly odd question but there is a second legend about John Cheyney. This one says that, after Cheyney was unhorsed by Richard III, he fell to the ground unconscious and the crest was knocked from his helmet. When he came around, he discovered that he had lost his helmet as well. Needing to protect his head if he was going to survive the battle, he cut the skull and horns from a nearby bull’s carcass and used them as an impromptu helmet.
This is undoubtedly a completely unverifiable historical legend with the air of a “tall tale that you tell down the inn” because it makes your battlefield exploits sound particularly glorious. It is therefore reasonable to approach this particular story with a degree of skepticism, especially as it does not sound entirely practical. At the time, the story was embraced and actively promoted by Cheney who subsequently used silver bull horns on a helmet as one of his heraldic badges, and as his crest. As it is the horns that appear in his badge, it is possible that he did find a skull/horns to replace his missing crest, and that the use of a skull to replace his whole helmet is a later addition to the story.
G E Cockayne, The Complete Peerage, vol III (1913); William Dodsworth, An historical account of the Episcopal see, and cathedral church, of Sarum, or Salisbury (1814); Chris Skidmore, Bosworth The Birth of the Tudors (2014); Anne Crawford, Yorkist Lord. John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, c. 1425-1485 (2010); Michael Powell Siddons, Heraldic Badges in England and Wales vol II.2 (2009)
The Beauchamp chapel was investigated by Time team in the episode Buried Bishops and Belfires Salisbury, Wiltshire. The Wessex Archaeology report on the excavations can be found here.